Intuitive Innovation


Douglas Van Praet describes how the unconscious and the emotional drive people, and how they, not tests, should drive the business of bringing ideas to life. He offers four ways to reframe the innovation process.

There’s a costly misconception hindering innovation. Marketing models hold that strategic reasoning must always precede and inform emotional execution. Before we decide to try an idea, we must first prove its worth by conscious knowledge untainted by feeling. But neuroscience suggests this is not only wrong, it’s backwards.

If “knowledge is power” we must understand cognition or the “process of knowing.” Cognitive science tells us that discoveries and decisions are made largely unconsciously. And feelings not reasoning come first. Emotions precede and inform rational understanding.

It’s time to flip the script and listen first to our bodies and then our minds. As French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal presciently observed, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Image: Flickr user Keith Ellwood

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explained this peculiarity through a revolutionary experiment known as the Iowa Gambling Task, designed to understand real-world decisions. Subjects could freely choose from four decks of playing cards in an attempt to win the most money and determine the most profitable decks. There were two bad decks full of high risk cards, and two profitable decks that yielded conservative but consistent pay-outs and rarely punished players.

Subjects were asked to report when they could explain why they favored one deck over another. It required about 50 cards before a participant began to change their behavior and favor a certain deck, and about 80 cards before they became aware of why they did it. Rationality is a relatively slow process. But in addition to asking them to explain their decisions, they also measured their emotional responses by gauging how the electrical properties of skin responded to anxiety and stress.

The experimenters found that the body got “nervous” after drawing only about 10 cards from the losing decks. Even though the subjects were not consciously aware, their bodies developed an accurate sense of fear and anxiety in response to a bad deck well in advance of the rational mind. The subjects’ feelings were faster and more accurate, having figured it out way before the conscious mind was tipped off.

Damasio formulated the landmark somatic marker hypothesis. This model of decision making shows how our decisions often depend upon access to what he calls somatic markers, feelings that are tagged and stored in the body and our unconscious minds. As Damasio states, “It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent literally in the flesh.”

This task is a challenge and metaphor to improve innovation. We can’t prove the profitability of an intuition or idea because it’s simply not open to conscious explanation. And if we wait for rational proof, we won’t get there in time or at all.

Image: Flickr user Michael Gil

Progress and profit lie at the speeding crossroads of creativity and risk management. So quick and easy concept/copy tests have been developed to decide which projects, products and ads get the green light. Respondents scrutinize and decide the value of new ideas. Marketers then analyze the explicit evidence to make their decisions.

The topline reports skim the surface because we’re asking consumers and ourselves to explain primarily intuitive purchase decisions. Intuition by definition is “something that is known or understood without proof or evidence.” The primacy of rational analysis is reflected in the abysmal failure rates of these tests. Most ideas that pass, go on to fail in market–about 80% of the new products launched in the US. Houston, we have a problem!

The problem is not the creative process. It’s the market research testing process. There’s never been a new idea proven without first trying it.

Steve Jobs refused testing. James Dyson, and Dietrich Mateschitz did pre-test but fortunately ignored the reports that told them their ideas wouldn’t work. And Apple, Dyson and Red Bull respectively, created revolutionary products and dominated entirely new categories.

Emotions assign value. Context creates meaning. These tests are not the real world. Disruptive ideas rarely pass because they’re benchmarked against norms of average old ideas, not revolutionary new ones. For example, the Red Bull test failed to measure the emotional value of wild parties and exciting sports to come, the future keys to the brand’s success.

We should not reject rationality. But we need to know its limits and place in the creative process. Because it’s crazy that a process designed to protect us from risk can be shooting us in the foot. And it’s irrational to expect innovation on one hand, only to kill it with the other.

Here are some initial thoughts to help nudge us forward.

Image: Flickr user Scott Granneman

Intuitive leaps are not always right. But testing online provides an invaluable chance to gauge real behavior and apply logic after the fact, where it is most helpful. If you are not piloting disruptive ideas, beta testing versions of your offerings and A/B testing your messages, you are missing the most effective ways to innovate. When you measure actions not words, you are measuring the hidden emotions that drive responses.

Image: Flickr user Louise Docker

Marketers are becoming out of touch with the real-life, flesh-and-blood needs and challenges of people. Most research is spent on testing and evaluating not empathizing and imagining. We need greater creative insight into improving human lives not just consumer sales. Behavioral science offers so much fertile ground yet woefully few farmers.

Image: Flickr user Jesse Freeman

Pretesting ideas will likely persist, so we need to revise methods to reflect how decisions and behavior change really happen. Fortunately, there is a process that I have discovered rooted in neuroscience (read about Van Praet’s seven-step process, chronicled in a series of posts on this site, here). These tests should be tools not rules, aimed at inspiring creativity not forecasting sales.

Image: Flickr user Zach Dischner

The industry standard for testing positioning concepts involves stripping them of emotional executional elements often in the form of “white card” concepts. The goal is to isolate the single functional benefit that best drives sales. This doesn’t make sense, nor does it work. It emphasizes the rational reasons to justify purchase, not the emotional motivation to buy in the first place. Art can teach science and ads can inform strategy.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a keynote speaker and founder of Unconscious Branding, a leading-edge brand strategy consultancy whose approach to marketing draws from Unconscious Behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems. He has positioned some of the world’s most iconic brands through highly effective award winning campaigns at leading agencies and marketers in New York and Los Angeles.

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